A short-distance marriage

SINGAPORE - I turned the key in the lock, opened the door to our serviced apartment, and found myself in a room the size of a bedroom closet.

Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration. But only a very small one - about as tiny as the studio apartment I had just walked into.

My husband and I had booked it for a month's stay in Tokyo, while we searched for a more permanent place to rent for the following year. Preferably one where "kitchen" meant something more than the hot plate and microwave oven I could see from the entryway of the serviced apartment.

To be fair, the apartment was already larger than the average Japanese hotel room. You could fling out an arm without having the TV crash to the ground and there was actually enough floor area visible to see that the tiles had a pattern on them.

My husband stepped in beside me. "Wow, this place is huge!" he said, with the excitement of a hamster being transferred from a shoebox to a real cage for the first time.

But he hadn't yet grasped what was just dawning on me: that we would have to spend the next 30 days cooped up within spitting - and smelling - distance of each other.

Marriages have crumbled over less. If the Beckhams traded in their mansion for a 300 sq ft studio, I'm pretty sure his singing in the shower would drive her to kick some balls of her own.

The funny thing is, when it comes to long-distance relationships, my husband and I are endurance champions. We spent four years apart when we were in university, first in different countries, then in different cities in the United States.

We often lamented the difficulties of physical separation in an era before Skype and FaceTime, but secretly we appreciated having the space to do what we each liked best without running up against the other's preferences.

Now, however, we would have to confront our worst fear: an extremely short- distance relationship. I work from home while my husband was on leave for the month. Could we survive the constant companionship of the person we each claimed to love the most? It would definitely require some adjustment. Instead of coordinating time zones, we would have to demarcate private turf zones.

Instead of running out of time to talk, we would probably run out of things to say.

Worst of all, instead of trying to share our thoughts over a noisy phone line, we would have to try very hard not to think about the noises coming from our shared bathroom.

At least, I chose to try very hard. My husband decided on the opposite tack: the first time I so much as wrinkled my nose, he yelled, "He who smelt it, dealt it!" and ran out of the room.

Fortunately, this happened only once. That's because after I finally stopped laughing, I ordered him never to say that again. And also because we soon discovered that although our studio was small, Tokyo was huge.

There was so much outside our doors to explore that we spent most of our time in the apartment planning our next excursions - finding the hippest cafe in trendy Shibuya, locating a nearby Malay restaurant, seeking out the best neighbourhood to live in.

But the heat and the crush of people outside also made us eager to return home every day to our tiny studio, with its crisp air-conditioning and sound-proof walls.

Even the compact size started to come in handy. After a long day, the two strides it took to get from the bathroom to the bed felt less restrictive and more restful.

Needless to say, the experience also brought my husband and me - long used to spending our hours at home in different rooms doing our own thing - closer together, literally and otherwise. After four years of marriage, a month of enforced proximity made us realise how much more considerate we could still be to each other.

When I wanted to sleep early, my husband would turn off all the room lights and take his book into the bathroom to read. In return, since we couldn't shut our untidy bed behind a door, I took to making the bed every morning - a habit I never knew my husband secretly wanted me to adopt.

We both plugged in headphones into our laptops, tried to keep to our own halves of the mini fridge and took turns to blast the air-conditioning (his preference) and turn it off altogether (mine).

As the month flew by, I thought about how claustrophobia makes us all lose our perspectives, if not our minds. In Singapore, where people literally live on top of one another, the need for some personal space can often become overwhelming.

But often a bit of thoughtfulness and sensitivity to the people around us can make "cramped" feel more like "cozy". In our expensive, congested lives, space is a luxury - but kindness doesn't have to be.

fiochan@sph.com.sg

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